Category: film

Last Train Home (2009)
“Documentarian Lixin Fan follows a couple who, like 130 million other Chinese peasants, left their rural village for work in the city, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents. The husband and wife return only once each year, on an arduous 1,000-mile journey. But their homecoming is not a warm one, as their now teenage daughter, Qin, makes her bitter resentment known and debates pursuing a factory job herself.”

From Zeitgeist films, two things struck me about this epic film – the incredibly personal footage that the filmmaker captured amidst the pandemonium and sheer size of this movement, and the insight it affords into one of the most powerful but least understood countries in the world. In spite of its scope, it focuses on the individuals and tells a powerfully intimate human story.

Last Train Home – official US trailer:

Sweetgrass (2009)
“As much a work of cultural anthropology as it is a documentary, this unique film traces the path of a family of Montana sheepherders as they drive their flock down from the treacherous and beautiful Absaroka Beartooth mountain range. With no guiding narration, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor let the natural images speak for themselves, capturing the danger, pathos and humor in this haunting elegy to a bygone way of life.”

If there is a thing that links the five films I have selected together, it is the ability of the filmmakers to render from seemingly abstract subjects, legitimately engaging stories focused on the people inside of their contexts. On the surface, Sweetgrass may appear a remote subject to city dwellers, and yet it works as an analogy that in spite of the incredible feats of which we are capable, the greatest obstacle is often within our own minds. An awe-inspiring document of a reality leaving the modern world perhaps forever.

The trailer for Sweetgrass:

The Cool School (2007)
“In the late 1950s, when Pollock and de Kooning were being hailed as revolutionary artists in New York, Los Angeles was still dealing with a blacklist that gutted creativity in all media. This is the story of the two men who changed all that. Recording a pledge on a hot dog wrapper to open a cutting-edge gallery, Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz took the West Coast art world by storm, embracing artists from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol.”

Los Angeles is a city like no other. It is a lens and a megaphone, a magnet to the luminaries of so many small villages scattered around the world that transforms and ignites their minds. And yet it is often looked upon as a vapid cultural cesspool. In The Cool School we explore the transformation of a dustbowl into a hotbed of cultural significance that would be exported and impact perceptions of popular culture irrevocably.

The Cool School trailer:

Superheroes (2011)
“Filmmaker Michael Barnett takes on the ultimate odd job in this eye-opening documentary about real-life “superheroes,” ordinary people who don capes, masks and alter egos in their spare time to right wrongs and make criminals pay for their actions. Among other characters, you’ll meet a tight-knit Brooklyn foursome that tackles tough cases as a squad dubbed the New York Initiative and a San Diego security officer who calls himself Mr. Xtreme.”

We collectively pay a lot of money into the blockbusters centered around the fantastical comic book heroes that raised us. Some take these examples of benevolence, courage, public service and yes, pageantry to heart, and in a quest to emulate them, find ways to substantiate their obsession by attempting to make them real. Beyond the rubber-necking curiosity that these real-life characters may elicit, comes a poignant message about being proactive and taking the risk to make a change in the world as opposed to a passive onlooker, judging their often dangerous lifestyle from the sidelines. A parable about taking responsibility and not simply being an innocuous voice of dissent.

Here is the trailer:

Samsara
“A nonverbal film described by the makers as a “guided meditation”. The film uses very high quality images, scenes of nature and mankind to stimulate the viewer. The film contains no plot or actors, although there are several performers in the film. Samsara is Ron Fricke’s 2011 follow-up to Baraka.”

In the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words spirit of Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi, “Samsara” affords us yet another lovingly executed, desperate look at our beautiful planet. At present, Samara, which had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival is awaiting distribution. You can help coordinate a screening at the official site.

samsara monks



L to R: Sam Davol, Stephin Merrit , John Woo, Claudia Gonson

[October 2nd, 2010 – Vancouver International Film Festival – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada]

For some The Magnetic Fields are icons, for most, they remain unknown. Strange Powers, the documentary about The Magnetic Fields directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara provides an unprecedented, intimate look at the band’s difficult-to-interview, enigmatic and brilliant leader Stephin Merritt.

“Stephen does not suffer fools,” says Daniel Handler a friend of Merritt’s and author of the Lemony Snicket series of books.

Indeed until the arrival of Strange Powers, virtually any interview conducted with Merritt since the band’s beginnings over two decades ago, has afforded little more than wry quips and deflections. Seen in the context of Merritt’s surprisingly candid participation with these filmmakers however, the reputation for being difficult or impenetrable dissolves quickly and in fact reveals itself to be nothing more than an extension of his pop-cultural wariness, razor sharp wit and erudition.

Back in the early ’90’s, whilst night club staff blasted Nirvana’s Nevermind whilst sweeping cigarette butts and beer bottle caps off the floor from the night before, The Magnetic Fields would be loading their instruments, consisting primarily of a cello, an acoustic guitar, several ukuleles and perhaps a piano through the stage door.


Their show would consist of songs about love, sex, heartbreak, romance, college and plays on words delivered in an almost childlike, most certainly non-rock format, fronted by Merritt’s irreverent, baritone voice, occasionally singing in duet with pianist and band-manager Claudia Gonson. Sam Davol would meticulously execute Merritt’s cello arrangements and John Woo would add air and rhythm to Gonson’s piano lines on acoustic guitar. Between songs Gonson and Merritt would carry on the banter they forgot to leave at the car in which they traveled from city to city, betraying the unique nature of their maternal, fraternal, incestuous, Platonic relationship much to the delight of the crowds.

“[There were definitely shows] where the band felt bigger than the room,” recalls cellist Davol: “It felt like something momentous was happening – or maybe the audience was just drunk…”

With archival footage dating all the way back to their teen years, growing up in the punk scene in the 80’s, to interviews with Merritt’s former employers as a copy editor and later writer for SPIN and TimeOut, through Merritt’s recent migration from New York to Los Angeles and even interviews with his mother at his new Cali home as he sits writhing in embarrassment, Strange Powers legitimately affords an intimate walk through and alongside the history of its enigmatic subject – a brilliant lyricist, arrangist, composer and performer with all the class of Serge Gainsbourg, all the lyrical capabilities of Leonard Cohen, and all the humor of Lord Buckley.

Fortunately the film is not only engaging because of its subject, but also because it is well paced, sequenced and edited, with visual elements delicately smattered throughout, allowing the personas and songs within to be revealed without ever over-saturating with adulation.

If you are not yet hip to the Magnetic Field’s catalog, get there now. Once you do, see this film and let your love grow.

Despite the fact that band fills large venues and is a darling of the New York middle aged hipster crowd, mainstream attention continues to elude them. In fact for this Canadian premiere of the film, the theater was only a quarter filled. Outside, lines stretched out half a block in anticipation of Biutiful. So it is difficult to say what sort of distribution this may find, and when it does, whether you will know well enough to lend it your eyes and ears.

If you are in Vancouver, one screening remains:

Sun, Oct 10th 11:00am
Vancity Theatre
Tickets available through the official VIFF Website or at the door

69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields remains one of my favorite “albums” of all time (I use bunny ears only because it spans three discs. We discover, in the film that Merritt’s original intention was to create 100 love songs, each using a different set of instruments, drum sources whether acoustic or synthesized) and to this day, whenever I put this collection of songs on, I invariably want to run out onto a rooftop and proclaim how utterly overwhelmingly brilliant it all is. But instead, I typically end up keeping it to myself, like a small inexpressible wonder. After seeing footage from the recording of their eighth release, “Distortion,” I am not only ashamed of not yet having heard it, but more excited than ever to be exposed to their subsequent creative output.

Magnetic Fields Select Discography:
Distant Plastic Trees (1991)
The Wayward Bus (1992)
The House of Tomorrow (EP) (1992)
Holiday (1994)
The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994)
Get Lost (1995)
69 Love Songs (1999)
i (2004)
Distortion (2008)
Realism (2010)